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Executive Corner – Breaking Down Hierarchies: Can Horizontal Leadership Work for Your Business?

Michael Clegg | 03/23/2023

One of my favorite authors is Patrick Lencioni. He is most known for authoring “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” It happens to be a book that I use when coaching leaders. In the book, Lencioni emphasizes the importance of horizontal leadership in building effective teams. According to Lencioni, horizontal leadership is a collaborative approach to leadership where team members work together and take responsibility for achieving the team’s goals.

Lencioni argues that horizontal leadership is essential for building trust, promoting healthy conflict, and encouraging commitment and accountability within the team. He believes that when team members take ownership of their roles and responsibilities, they become more invested in the success of the group as a whole and more likely to work together to achieve common goals rather than focus on their silos or departments.

Lencioni presents a model for building effective teams, including five fundamental dysfunctions that can undermine team performance. The first dysfunction is the absence of trust, which can occur when team members are afraid to be vulnerable to one another. The second dysfunction is fear of conflict, where team members avoid healthy debate and discussion. The third dysfunction is a lack of commitment, where team members do not buy into decisions and plans made by the team. The fourth dysfunction is avoidance of accountability, where team members do not hold each other accountable for meeting goals and objectives. And the fifth dysfunction is inattention to results, where team members focus on their individual goals rather than the teams.

To overcome these dysfunctions, Lencioni recommends building trust through vulnerability, encouraging healthy conflict, fostering commitment through clarity and buy-in, establishing clear roles and responsibilities, and holding team members accountable for meeting objectives. Through these practices, teams can develop a culture of horizontal leadership that promotes collaboration, innovation, and success.

There are many great stories of structureless companies. The most famous company that claims to thrive with Horizontal Leadership is Zappos. Teams are given a great deal of autonomy and are encouraged to work collaboratively to achieve their goals. There are no traditional hierarchies, and decentralized decision-making, with teams free to experiment and innovate. 

Zappos has implemented several practices that promote collaboration and self-organization to support this approach. For example, the company uses a holocracy management system based on the principles of self-organization and distributed decision-making. Zappos emphasizes building strong relationships among team members and creating a positive and supportive work culture.

Other companies like Morning Star, a tomato processing company in California, handle 25%-30% of the tomatoes processed yearly in the United States. It is the world’s largest. This company is known for its unique management structure based on self-management and peer accountability principles. 

There are no formal job titles or managers, and employees are encouraged to take ownership of their work and collaborate to achieve the company’s goals. Instead of managers, the company has colleagues, and decisions are made through a consensus-based process.

Morning Star’s horizontal leadership approach has a strong culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation. The company has also been recognized for its high employee engagement and satisfaction levels and exceptional performance and growth.

Overall, Morning Star’s leadership approach is unique and innovative, earning the company a reputation as a pioneer in self-management and organizational design.

If a horizontal leadership style is so awesome, why are most companies still hierarchical? Many companies choose a more traditional focus. Especially companies that consider themselves successful. Changing to a horizontal structure would require significant time, effort, and resources to adjust to that type of structure. Therefore, they will stick with what they know. Hierarchy structures create a transparent chain of command, making it easier for managers to control and coordinate the activities of their subordinates. This structure may seem complicated to convert to in larger organizations. Decision-making is deemed to be more efficient in traditional hierarchical structures. Top-down decision-making flows smoothly instead of consulting with a larger group to gain consensus. Trust is still essential but only sometimes needed in a chain-of-command style organization.

Let’s review some Pros and Cons of a Horizontal Leadership Structure:


1.     Collaboration: Flat leadership structures can foster collaboration among team members by promoting equal participation and contributions, leading to increased creativity and innovation.

2.     Empowerment: It gives team members more autonomy and decision-making power; they can feel more invested in the success of the project or the organization.

3.     Flexibility: Horizontal structures can be more adaptable to changing circumstances and needs since decision-making is decentralized.

4.     Reduced hierarchy: Hierarchical structures can create power imbalances and lack transparency, reducing Psychological Safety.

5.     Better use of skills: Horizontal leadership allows teams to better utilize team members from different areas of expertise to benefit the entire organization instead of those specialized areas, departments, or silos.


1.     Decision-making can be slower: Since decisions are made collaboratively, it can take more time to reach a consensus or agreement

2.     Lack of direction: Without clear leadership or hierarchy, it can be challenging to establish a clear direction or vision for the team or organization.

3.     Accountability can be unclear: Without a clear leader, it can be difficult to establish accountability for individual tasks or decisions.

4.     Conflict resolution: Horizontal leadership can lead to conflicts or disagreements that are difficult to resolve, especially if there is no clear structure for decision-making or conflict resolution.

5.     Lack of expertise: In some cases, horizontal leadership structures may not be suitable for teams or organizations that require a high level of expertise or specialized knowledge in a particular area.

The benefits of the Pros outweigh the Cons, in my opinion, and experience. You can have one or two central authorities or leaders to surmount the challenges above. Patrick Lencioni lays this out nicely in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Every one of these Cons can be overcome quite easily. However, groupthink is the one Con not listed that could destroy a horizontal Leadership structure. It can be detrimental in a horizontal leadership structure. Groupthink occurs when a group conforms to a particular way of thinking or decision-making style to try and maintain harmony and avoid conflict. In a horizontal design, decision-making is distributed across the team; groupthink can lead to a lack of diverse perspectives and a failure to consider all available information. 

Consensus will only be met if this horizontal team has Psychological Safety and doesn’t fear speaking up. Don’t get me wrong, there will be plenty of decisions made that 100% of the team doesn’t agree with, but in those cases, once the decision is made, a strong, trusting team will commit to moving forward once the team has decided. Everyone’s viewpoint must be heard. It is critical that diverse perspectives are represented and that there is safety in transparent communication. Groupthink leads to a false sense of agreement and poor decision-making and may cause the team to overlook potential problems or flaws. This is why distributed decision-making teams cannot be afraid of conflict. Without trust, fear of conflict will defeat sound decision-making.

Traditional organizations interested in moving to a horizontal leadership style can do this across smaller teams or divisions. The biggest lesson from Lencioni is that the horizontal team is priority #1 over the individual leader’s divisions. The team’s decisions should benefit the entire organization, not just their departments. For example, let’s say we have a Chief Operating Officer with a horizontal leadership team comprising Human Resources, Technology, Finance, and Procurement Vice Presidents. In a hierarchical organization, this team would consist of the four Vice Presidents representing their divisions and reporting up to the C.O.O. A horizontal leadership team’s priority is their Vice Presidential peers on their shared services team. This means that their discussions and decisions are focused on the benefit of the broader organization and not just their divisions like in traditional organizations.

An essential first step in a hierarchal organization is to improve the workplace by transforming the role of “bosses” from command and control to trust and inspire. That means instead of directing tasks, leaders need to be stewards who empower team members to do their best work and be their best selves. Instead of controlling, leadership should hold space and support their teams. By taking on this role, leaders can help create a positive, collaborative work environment that allows everyone to thrive. Once this step has been created, creating your horizontal team should be much easier. I recommend putting together a charter or mission statement for this team that they create and agree on. Once these expectations are set, they use them as their north star.

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